I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums one to five.
#1 – “Come From Heaven” by Alpha
There was a period during the late 90s when record fairs were full of promo CDs of albums for a couple of quid. It felt like the record industry was throwing tons of crap at the wall and hoping a minuscule amount of it would stick. Those record fairs would end up being rich pickings for me – I ended up with some great albums amongst the dross, I’d pick a title or band because the name sounded interesting or I might have read about them. That’s how I found little gems like The Willard Grant Conspiracy and The Liquor Giants (if “Every other day at a time” had been their debut, I’d sure as hell be writing about it here). It’s also how I ended up with “Come from heaven” by Alpha.
I knew about Alpha from an advert I’d seen in one of the music papers for the Melancholik label, run by Massive Attack. I had picked up their debut single “Sometime later” – again from a bargain bin, this time Diverse Records’ £1 cd singles box. (We’ll come back to that box on a later instalment). I had liked the single and the b sides, it was definitely in the post Portishead orchestral trip-hop vibe. And they were from Bristol. And it turned out that one of them (Corin Dingley) had helped out on the production and engineering of Secret Shine’s debut LP “Untouched”. So..worth a punt for three quid.
The first few times I listened to “Come from heaven” I really didn’t get it. Sure it was a pleasant enough record to put on at bedtime and fall asleep to (again, this may end up a theme) but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Then one day I felt like crap in work, full up with a cold and barely able to concentrate. I went home sick, stopping off at the pharmacists long enough to buy some sort of Contac 400 “Night and day” cold relief tablets. I headed home, took a tablet, lay on my bed and shoved “Come from heaven” on. Whatever was in those tablets must have been pretty strong because I felt light-headed and woozy almost instantly. I didn’t feel better, I just felt like I didn’t give a shit about my cold any longer. And as the drugs kicked in the album started to make sense to me.
The album is built around looped samples from multiple sources – a bit of Percy Faith Orchestra here, a Dusty Springfield there, Michel Legrand’s soundtrack to “Le Mans”… All scratchy vinyl, a dab of melody here and there, sub-bass blurts and orchestral arrangements that are subtle but lovely. The vocals are handled by three singers – Wendy Stubbs, Martin Barnard and Helen White – all sound drowsy and half-awake which adds to the general downtempo nature of the record. “Sometime later” is an early highlight – brooding and slow, but building in intensity as it progresses before Barnard finally explodes as the orchestra rises in pitch – “Hold the sun down, hold the moon down, leave me the rest…”. “Delaney” is a duet between White and Barnard, taking alternate verses, almost conversational, the loop falling over itself. If anything I prefer Barnard’s vocals on the album as a whole, he sounds more involved somehow. It’s not perfect throughout – “Slim” is a bit too much Portishead-by-numbers – but overall for a summer’s day strung out on cold cures it was great. It maintains its mood throughout its sixty eight minutes. Could it lose a few of those minutes? Of course it could – just because a CD could hold up to eighty minutes of music, it didn’t mean everybody’s debut album had to fill every minute. Have I mentioned how much I love “Firefly” towards the end of the album? No? I know there was probably some grand concept by putting a different version of “Sometime later” at the end of the album with Stubbs’ vocal instead of Barnard’s…
Like I have already said, this is not “My favourite debut albums”, just debut albums I think are worth a listen. For sunny days like today, this is worth putting on in the background.
#2 – “Sixty-Nine” by AR Kane
I missed A.R.Kane at the time, and I mean completely missed them. I was aware of their existence through reading the music papers religiously every week, but I didn’t hear them on the radio or see them on TV (did they do any TV? I doubt it). They were just a name that the Melody Maker writers raved about during the late 80s. I just bleeped them out, that’s all.
Jump to the summer of 1993 and I borrow a copy of Simon Reynolds’ book “Blissed Out” from Cardiff library and devour it from cover to cover. Can these records be that good? Reynolds saved his highest praise for A.R.Kane and their first few singles and their debut LP “69”. I thought I should hear this music, see what it’s like. Obviously the records aren’t available in normal record shops – their label Rough Trade records regularly went bust in those days – so I had to scour second hand record shops. I took a trip to Bristol mainly to recreate the pictures on the Sarah Records labels 21-30 – the Severn Beach railway line – and ended up in Plastic Wax, a record collecting shop I’d frequented for nearly ten years (I’d first been there in early 84, buying early OMD singles). It was there I found “69” by AR Kane on tape. It wasn’t my ideal format but at least I could listen to the album on the train journey back to Penarth. As I sit down on the train leaving Temple Meads I slot the tape in and press play.
“Crazy blue” starts like an almost normal song, wandering bass, choppy guitar chords, congas and some sweet(ish) singing about everything going crazy. So far so normal. Then the chorus comes in, drums drop in from nowhere and these amazing guitar chords radiate across the stereo spectrum, rich in harmonics, a sumptuously lush sound while the bass gets untethered and wanders crazily up and down octaves. Back to the verse again and now it sounds more dub-like – echoing rim-shots, spaces in the music. And the chorus bursts back in with those radiant guitars again. And the singing isn’t forceful or declamatory, it’s lazy and swooning – “When I think of you, everything goes crazy”. That sounds like real life to me. But those guitars, and that bass. Good opener. “Suicide kiss” starts with a repeated bass line and a stop start drum pattern and the singer knows something’s falling apart – “The writing’s on the wall”, “This is not another sob story”. . Tension builds, on the second verse walls of distorted guitars join in, just one chord all the way through. Then after the second chorus, screaming single notes of feedback enter and the drums start going mental, ricocheting off against each other as more and more shards of noise join in until the whole song collapses on itself, the drums stumble to a halt and the guitars feed back endlessly. The bass guitar starts again and now all hell has broken loose, guitars all over the place, Alex Ayuli almost shouts to be heard above the cacophony, and the song stops dead – like a tape cut, or a suicide.
By now I’m loving this album. I can see why the critics loved it. The next song is “Baby milk snatcher” – obviously a reference to Mrs Thatcher “the milk snatcher” who stopped free school milk in the mid 70s. (As an aside, I still get an instant memory rush if I drink milk at room temperature, I’m back in primary school in Leeds drinking milk out of a tiny glass bottle through a straw – the milk was never chilled in those days). This song is more dub-wise, a heavy bass, echoes and spaces, but with huge waves of guitars in the way. And it sounds kind of sexy too – “baby suck seed slow slow slow”. And it’s at this point the train blasts into the Severn Tunnel, the carraige goes dark, the windows rattle and it’s a most perfect moment. “Scar” is more minimal – a lightly strummed guitar, some odd lyrics, echoed drum shots, more space. “Sulliday” on the other hand is just too much. Even now I don’t understand it – it’s a collection of moments and sounds, each unrelated to each other, all engulfed within an ocean of reverb. No melody to speak of, words that wander in and out, just oddness. The only equivalent I’ve come across is “Dreaming at rain” by Eyeless In Gaza, which is a seven minute improvisation in the middle of an otherwise song based LP. End of side one. Turns tape over, watches the sun stream through the windows.
“Dizzy” defies convention. While there’s a cello in the foreground and everything feels normal on the surface, Ayuli’s lyrics are slightly queasy – “Dizzy, like when the blood runs away” – and dip in and out. Someone’s having fun at the mixing desk. And in the background there’s strange screaming and guitars going supernova, but never overpowering the song itself. Odd. “Spermwhale trip over” is the song that sounds most like their antecedents the Cocteau Twins, a drum machine taps gentlly, a bass plays a prominent role, guitars circle around each other, but there’s again a sense of space that the Cocteaus never had. And again whispers in the background – “I love you forever”. It’s delicious and beautiful. “The sun falls into the sea” was the song that Reynolds went nuts over the most – something like “It sounds like they are playing a whale’s rib cage”. How could it live up to that? But by golly it does! The first two minutes drift in quietly, guitars sparkle in strange hues, a waves of harmonics, then the lightest percussion, bass wandering around, vocals like crushed hearts, a soprano sax, all in this beautiful reverbed cavern of sound. I had heard nothing like it then, and I’ve heard nothing like it since. “The madonna is with child” is built around a repeated piano pattern which sounds quite threatening, and AR Kane throw every trick they have at the song – sky kissing feedback arcs, multiple twinkles of harmonics, and it all makes sense. And there’s a feeling of loss too in the words and music, if the previous two songs were loved up and blissed out, this is more about the turmoil, the falling out. The album closes with “Spanish quay (3)”, an instrumental reprise of what has already been. And that’s it. I loved it, and hunted high and low to find it on vinyl and CD, being one of the few albums I own on all three formats.
A stunning debut album featuring more innovation in sound and ideas than most bands create in their entire careers. There’s a gleeful sense of playfulness – a “what if?” mentality to working in a recording studio that works every time. It’s an album I can return to over and over again and still find new details within it. I’ll probably keep saying “this isn’t a best debut albums list” but frankly “69” IS one of the best debut albums ever. Full stop.
#3 – “Hex” by Bark Psychosis
“Hex” is the sound of an unfamiliar town as a cold winter turns into a slightly less cold spring. Dark nights, catching buses which take odd turns into housing estates I have no idea about, feeling uneasy, paranoid – where ARE we going? I don’t recognise this street, can everyone see the panic on my face? I’d only been living in Newport for a month or so, slowly settling into my new house. I didn’t know the town, only how to catch a bus in to the bus station and a bus out to work. If anything happened differently I was lost. One day it snowed and all the buses stopped, I tried to walk to work and got completely lost and ended up having to ring in to work from a call box to admit defeat and say I wasn’t coming in. My parents brought my cat Bez to live with me and he hated it – he missed his three feline playmates in Penarth, he didn’t like being stuck inside the house all the time and spent most of his days sat on top of my wardrobe miaowing at me. He went back after a week. It wasn’t that easy for me.
And “Hex” is that sound. I’d bought the single “A street scene” on 10″ red vinyl and loved it, and I bought “Hex” on the day it was issued, Valentine’s Day 1994. Not that I had a valentine that year. When lovers everywhere indulged in meals and chocolates and huge inflated prices for roses, I spent the night listening to the new Bark Psychosis album. It’s not a conventional rock album – it was after all the album that gave rise to Simon Reynolds’ term “post-rock” – but it is mainly played out on conventional instruments. It is possible it was recorded meticulously and sequenced in places using whatever now-primitive technology was available at the time, but it all sounds natural. It doesn’t sound synthetic at all. There’s lovely tremelo guitar, bass and drums, piano sometimes in chords and patterns, sometimes just notes. The music ebbs and flows naturally, quiet to loud to quiet, the drums are brushed rather than hit hard, spaces in the music… And Graham Sutton’s whisper of a voice telling secrets and truths – “It’s gonna work out anyway”, “You turn my world upside down”, “And that’s the biggest joke of all”. Highlights? “A street scene”, the closest thing to a hit single, the song exploding in noise before slowing gradually to a crawl. The late night drive around town of “Big shot”. Then the closing two songs. “Eyes and smiles” flows from one section to another, that guitar pattern, cymbals keeping time, occasional bass, keyboards like a sunrise, moving across eight minutes of logic and beauty, rising to a crescendo as the musicians slowly increase the pressure, the drums swing around, the bass juts in, wild Miles Davis style trumpets blatt in, the levels increase and Sutton finally lets loose, shouting “And you’ve got to go on!”. After that – no more words. “Pendulum man” is a nine minute drift of guitars and synth washes, making the most of the echoes in the church being used to record the album. A great closer, relieving the tension building up to that point.
So turn off the lights, watch the night fall with the curtains open and let “Hex” weave its magical spell. Try not to get lost.
#4 – “Please please me” by The Beatles
If the past is a foreign country then music is the passport.
It’s Spring 1963 and Anne is just turning fifteen years old. Is she interested in boys? Probably. There’s a few older boys who she might fancy but nothing serious, not yet, nothing to distract her from studying for her CSEs and O level exams, but they’re still a year or so away. But what does interest her is this new music coming out of Liverpool. She’s probably heard it on Radio Luxembourg and “Saturday Club” on the Light Programme. It doesn’t sound like anything else around, the staid and boring music in the charts that passes for rock’n’roll. No, this sound young, fresh, exciting – it SPEAKS to her, it’s her generation talking to her. There’s lots of new groups around and she notices them all, noting the names of the bands and their songs. She’ll write to the local paper and say that it’s not just the Beatles who are making waves, there’s other bands – like the Merseybeats. A week later after the letter is published the manager of the Merseybeats turns up on her doorstep, getting suspicious looks from her parents, offering her a chance of a lifetime – a chance she’ll reject. There’s exams and life to live yet. And quite frankly, the Merseybeats aren’t really as good as the Beatles.
She buys the singles and after saving she buys the Beatles’ debut album “Please please me”. She imagines her future self being “just seventeen” in “I saw her standing there”. She doesn’t quite recognise all the adult emotions within “Anna (go to him)” but she does understand the emotion in John Lennon’s voice during the middle section – “All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl…”. She hopes someone will write a letter to her like “PS I love you”. She hopes someone will whisper “Do you want to know a secret?” in her ear. She gets a thrill each time she dances to the wild rave up “Twist and shout” in her bedroom in the little terraced house she lives in. This is music for her.
She’ll go to see the Beatles at the Capitol Theatre in May, with Roy Orbison in support. She goes along with her friend David, who is older. He’s played her his LPs, the music of his youth – Elvis, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly – but again it’s a different generation, even though these acts are clearly hugely influential on the Beatles. Does she scream at the concert? Possibly. There is a feeling rising around this band, a hope for the future… But for now just dance and sing along and enjoy the moment while it lasts. Pop music is so transient, they could be forgotten in eighteen months. Anne places the stylus back to the opening song, hears Paul McCartney counting off “1…2…3…4” and they’re off again.
It’s 1975, Anne and David have been married eight years now. 1966… Seems like a long time ago now. They spent a few months in London through David’s job in the GPO, that’s something to tell the children – living in London in 1966! Whenever Anne sees the opening credits of “Georgy Girl” it always reminds her of that time. Young and free spirited, and in London! Anne and David were married in September that year before going to London, then moved around through David’s job, there were two sons – the first in late ’67 and the second in ’69. And now the whole family listens to the cassettes of the Beatles albums whenever they travel around the country, visiting Cardiff or on holidays. Everyone enjoys the Beatles tapes, it crosses boundaries of age, unites the family. The youngest son may have his own problems with his eyes but he really loves his music. David buys him a book about the Beatles – a “Story of Pop” book which glosses over the harder to understand parts of their story – and he devours it, wanting to know more information about the songs and the music. David borrows “Yellow Submarine” from the library and the youngest son sits in the garden listening to “Only a Northern Song” on his little cassette player. What the hell? But he seems to recognise something in the music which gives him comfort, which makes him happy. Does he understand it? Who knows….
Whenever I hear “Please Please Me” it always makes me think of those long car journeys. There’s some quality in the sound, the sound of youth, the sound of a fresh start, the sound of incipient freedom. The simplicity of the music, the band playing together… When I was young I didn’t recognise it as anything other than the Beatles – I didn’t know about cover versions, I didn’t know the source of “Baby it’s you” and “A taste of honey”. I just knew it was good. It was only years later – probably as a teenager – that I listened harder, and realised that the whole album hangs on one song – “There’s a place”. Because the place they are singing about isn’t a physical place to escape to – away from the pressure of life and love and parents and work and children and everything, away from when it all gets on top of you. The “place” is the mind – and time stands still – “and there’s no time when I’m alone”. Of course there’ll be “No sad tomorrows” too – the future is assured. And yet the music is bright and breezy. this was early 1963, it had to be. Brian Wilson was six months away from writing his own introspective tribute to inner retreat from pressure “In my room”. But “There’s a place” is so significant to me anyway because it promises so much within its verses and choruses, all over within two minutes. It feels to me like justification for internalisation – see, somebody else thinks like this, it must be ok. I love the whole album, of course I do, I’ve known it all my life. The sound of that echo chamber as the songs on side two progress, it’s the sound of coming home – physically (the end of the journey) and figuratively. Of course it is also the start of the journey – the distance from “Please please me” to “Abbey Road”, and all the passengers that the Beatles brought along with them. This, you see, is why I’ve resisted writing about the Beatles – it’s personal. It’s probably the same for everyone, and that’s the magic of their music. Just put the LP on and imagine that fifteen year old girl dancing to it in 1963, and realise that’s over fifty years ago and we’re still listening to it now. That’s an important debut album.
#5 – “If wishes were horses” by Blueboy
In the sleeve note to “Honey Sweet” by Secret Shine (Sarah 61? January 92?) whichever one of Matt or Clare wrote along the lines of “We’re more excited about a debut album by Blueboy than the millionth single by the Field Mice” and I could only agree. By that point I’d only heard the first Blueboy single and that had been good enough. Issued in a batch of three singles with “Half-hearted” by Brighter and “After years” by Secret Shine during the autumn of ’91, “Clearer” shone out like a beacon. Quietly melodic, so subtle I completely missed the political subtext of anti-Clause 28 for a while, it was great and the b-side “Alison” sounded like a long lost artefact from a strange meeting of Durutti Column and Dislocation Dance circa 1982. It was that good. I had high hopes, only to be raised by hearing Blueboy’s second single “Popkiss”. Peel played it, I taped it, I played it over and over that night, writing in my diary the next day “PROMISE FULFILLED” (yes I wrote it in capitals), before I’d even heard the b-sides. “Popkiss” was HUGE, guitars churning, the rhythm section holding back and Keith Girdler singing his heart out, proud of what he is. Then… THEN… Drum rolls galore, more guitars gallumping over the horizon, a chord change or two to die for, and oh is that me dancing? Really? Well throwing my limbs around in a random way anyway. And when it all gets a bit Status Quo at the end and really rifftastic? Bloody brilliant.
So of course I was excited about the debut album “If wishes were horses”, released at the end of the summer of 1992. That title after all had resonance with me – it’s a song on “Can’t help falling in love” by Andy Williams, part of the heartbreaking medley on side two. First shock when buying the album – a list of members, there’s five of them? A proper band! Great. “Candy bracelets” has sweet boy girl harmony vocals hiding a tale of sex, loss of innocence and regret, while the guitars cascade around the lithe and supple rhythm section. “Cloud babies” is acoustic guitar and cello and voice and that’s enough to break my heart. Those chord changes, the melody, the words… “I’ve known people sell their soul for a chance to see their own stupid face if there is love… A guitar and that alone sounds like heaven is my friend…I have seen the face of God”… You know this looks stupid on paper, you just need to hear it. If it wasn’t for “A winter’s dawn” turning up then “Cloud babies” would have been song of the year in ’92. “Too good to be true” is just voice and jazzy guitar, again words cutting through, a manifesto of positivity, relishing the difference between worlds. “Fondette” cuts even harder, over music which sounds like the bastard son of Freddie Phillips’ “Chigley” music, Gemma recites words that are as relevant today as then. “That’s right, get on with your life, get a good CV…” Remember, this is a band who appeared on the front of the WAAAH fanzine with a sign saying “F*** this government to bits”. From one useless Conservative government to another, things have not improved. Sigh. “Sea horses” is light relief, back to the full band, twee but happy – “Don’t sigh, don’t cry, there’s more to me than you think”! A great performance. “Clear skies” is jazzy again, going a bit early Aztec Camera in places, Gemma sings of two different views on life. “Happiness and smiles” was the song that ended up on mixtapes, slower and sadder, this song makes me think of the people and the times of Autumn ’92 – “Is it like this? Is it happiness and smiles?” Of course it isn’t. Layers of guitars and bass and cellos add to the melancholy. “Amoroso” is a fine finale, the full band again, God knows what Girdler’s singing about but that chorus shines – “Leaves are falling, mountains crumbling, she’s in love with a memory”… Then after two verses the band rock out for the last three minutes, well as much as Blueboy rock out. It’s wonderful. Utterly wonderful…
Of course I can’t leave it there. I’ve probably mentioned it but I’ll say it again. I headed up to Manchester in November ’92 to stay with my brother in Stockport and see two gigs on consecutive nights – Julian Cope at Manchester Uni and a Sarah Records night at the Swinging Sporran. Andy didn’t want to join me on the second night… So I found my own way there, got in way too early, sat watching Brighter and Blueboy soundcheck, Matt finally asked me to pay for entry, I almost bought Harvey Williams a drink, someone asked the soundman to tape the gig, Boyracer were short and loud and punky, Blueboy were immensely good – I stood at the side of the stage looking longingly at Harvey’s red Gibson 335 guitar, they played a few acoustic numbers to start – Keith and Paul on stools, then more of the band entered, playing unrecorded songs like “Stephanie” and “A gentle sigh” and “Air france”, then rockier songs at the end… “Popkiss” was incredible, big smiling from ear to ear music, then closing with “Amoroso”, Keith grabbing a red Strat to add to the guitar chaos at the end… Then I had to leave to catch the last train to Stockport so I missed Brighter, but chatted to Clare and bought two t-shirts which got worn out through wearing them with pride… A fabulous night. The set list is inside the sleeve of “If wishes were horses”, you know..
Next time – more debut albums I expect… You’ll soon get sick of me, I promise.